Cyberstalking? Or Free Speech?

Phil Haberman's lies to his former wife started a legal mess concerning postings on his missus' blog.

Calling her a "cyberstalker" and "a menace," a judge in Florida has ordered Kristen Rhoad to remove all her postings about ex-husband Phil Haberman from the Internet -- including not only her own blog, RhoadWarrior, but also a story about Rhodes and her ex that appeared in the paper version of Unfair Park in September 2005. Now, we aren't trembling in our boots. Nothing's coming off our Web site. But bloggers out there may want to pay attention to the outcome of this case, which has already led Rhode to take down her Web site.

A former Dallas resident, Phil Haberman was the focus of my story "G.I. Jerk," which exposed his predilection for posing as a Special Forces soldier who had been wounded in Iraq, scamming sympathy and money from kind-hearted people. According to military records, however, Haberman was not a Special Forces soldier, nor was he wounded in Iraq. So far Haberman has received two military discharges on conditions other than honorable.

Rhoad began her Web site after their divorce, she says, to warn others about Haberman's actions. Since then, her blog has gotten national attention, been cited on the Media Law Resource Center and referred to in various newspapers and online publications such as Creative Loafing, Veriseal and LoveFraud. Her efforts illustrate the problems with emerging technology when it collides with free speech: Are blogs afforded the same status -- and protection --as other publications? Or is publishing by blog outside the realm of First Amendment protection?

It started with a woman scorned. Rhoad, a sometime-stripper and paralegal, got pissed off that she got fooled by Haberman's lies about his military record. She was also angry that she was not given her portion of his military pay while married to him.

Others who had interactions with Haberman contacted her, and she posted their accusations.

Last year Haberman, living in Florida, filed a domestic violence complaint against Rhoad, saying that her postings were a form of stalking and harassment. Florida has a law prohibiting so-called "cyberstalking," which apparently can mean just about anything -- from repeated posts about someone's anatomy to complaints about a business.

A California resident, Rhoad has tried to fight the court's jurisdiction. Can a Florida judge impose state law on a resident of California? She also claims that the information she posts about Haberman is true and thus protected speech.

Last September Judge Robert Bennett heard testimony from Rhoad and Haberman. The following exchange was printed in Creative Loafing:

[Judge] Bennett asked [Rhoad] directly.

"And your purpose for posting all this over the Internet is what, exactly?"

"To alert the women who have been his victims like me," she answered. She wanted "to warn people of who Phil Haberman is."

The judge wasn't impressed.

"I think, Ms. Rhoad," he said, "you're a menace. I think you're absolutely motivated by revenge and a desire to destroy this man. Your allegations may be true; the First Amendment protects you to the extent that you don't use it to harm others. [But] the First Amendment is not an absolute guarantee. None of the Bill of Rights is absolute."

Rhoad reports that she was stunned. But the judge had more to say.

"We can't use our free speech to set out and accomplish the destruction of a person's reputation," he said.

His decision was succinct but ambitious.

"Respondent shall remove, or cause to be removed, all blogs, e-mails or other Web-based communications to petitioner or third parties that refer to petitioner and which are posted, or caused to be posted, by respondent."

Reading his order to the defendant, Bennett acknowledged its pitfalls. "I don't know how you go about doing that," he said. "But that's going to be required. You are to have absolutely no contact with this gentleman, directly or indirectly. If this injunction is violated further I can sentence you to six months in county jail, and don't think that I will not do it."

Rhoad has appealed for legal help, but so far has found no champions. Her Web site was removed, but she soon found another home for it.

Ruling that she was in contempt of court for not showing up for a hearing -- Rhoad claims she was given only two days notice -- Judge Bennett issued a warrant for her arrest in Florida.

The questions are only beginning. Gerald Weber, legal director for the Georgia branch of the ACLU told Creative Loafing's Joel Rozen that bloggers' rights "are very much an emerging area of the law. Personal jurisdiction comes up with some frequency, and there are a lot of unsettled questions."

What's different about the Haberman-Rhoad case is that Haberman is not seeking to prove that what Rhoad said is not true. He just wants to prevent her from writing anything about him on her blog in the future. And that's almost unprecedented in cyberspace. --Glenna Whitley

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky